What is it?
A systematic method used to perform qualitative research aimed at understanding cultures, groups, and organizations.
Why is it important?
Ethnography has evolved, spanning across several anthropology specialties, and ethnographers have joined forces with communication science and market research practitioners. The discipline has moved away from rigorous academia toward a more pragmatic and fast-paced approach. Some large corporations use ethnographers for market research, but the potential of ethnography is still largely overlooked[Ladner 2012].
Why does a technical communicator need to know this?
Ethnography provides a structured methodology for understanding and interpreting the cultural constructs in which people live.
In corporate environments, ethnography can inform market research, user experience design, global usability testing, persona development, and audience analysis. In these cases, companies look for contradictions between what their customers declare they do and how they really act, so they can identify their customers’ hidden needs. What people say, what people do, and what people say they do don’t always align, and this misalignment can expose needs or barriers that a product or service could resolve.
In addition, cultural differences can cause people to perceive or interact with a product or service differently than expected. In his work for IBM on cultural dimensions, Geert Hofstede attempted to define and model these behaviors[Hofstede]. Others have since built on this work[Burrow 2008][Anderson 2009].
Despite concerns that corporate ethnographic research lacks rigor, such research can inform not only the design and development of new products and services, but also allow the discovery and investigation of new markets. Companies such as Intel have interpreted their customers’ needs and adjusted their strategies accordingly, for instance, by creating new business units.
Ethnography can provide these insights:
- Ensure that content resonates with the audience and translates well.
- Avoid cultural blunders[Brooks 2013].
- Adjust culture-bound metaphors and images.
- Choose whether or not to translate product names, slogans, ads, etc.
- Avoid costly errors or unnecessary rebranding.
Used well, ethnography can improve a company’s globalization efforts and give it an advantage in the global market[LaVecchia 2016][Heath 1999].
- [Hofstede] The 6-D model of national culture: Hofstede, Geert. An explanation of cultural dimensions that Hofstede developed at IBM.
- [Burrow 2008] American Dreaming: Refugees from Corporate Work seek the Good Life: Burrow, David. (2008). PDF. How to use ethnography for in-depth consumer insight.
- [LaVecchia 2016] Intro to Discourse Communities and Ethnographic Writing: LaVecchia, Christina M. (2016). Video. Lecture on YouTube that discusses discourse communities.
- [Heath 1999] Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms: Heath, Shirley Brice. (1999). Book. Page 13 discusses conceptual categories of composition.
- [Ladner 2012] Does corporate ethnography suck? A cultural analysis of academic critiques of private-sector ethnography: Ladner, Sam. (2012). Ethnography Matters blog post that discusses the problems and challenges with corporate ethnography. There are 3 parts to the post.
- [Anderson 2009] Ethnographic research a key to strategy: Anderson, Ken. (March 2009). An article in Harvard Business Review that discusses ways a company can use ethnography to inform corporate strategy.
- [Brooks 2013] Lost in Translation: 8 International Marketing Fails: Brooks, Chad. (2013). A Business News Daily blog post that describes some of the more famous marketing blunders.